Year Inducted: 1963 (Veterans Committee)
In recent years, the word “narrative” has been used to explain some award choices by the BBWAA. In 2012, Miguel Cabrera won the MVP over Mike Trout because there was a narrative with Cabrera regarding the Triple Crown (which hadn’t been done in 45 years), despite the fact that Trout was a better overall player (when defense and base running were taken into account), and the Angels actually had a better record than the Tigers (who made the post season by being in a terrible division). A more historical example would be Maury Wills’ MVP in 1962. Wills was a big story that year, setting the record for most stolen bases in a season with 104. However, Willie Mays trounced him in nearly every other statistical category (e.g., out homering Wills 48-6), and wound up second in the MVP race despite the fact that Mays’ Giants won the NL Pennant that season. There’s not always consistency year-to-year for the voting.
The narrative can also be seen in a lot of voting for the Hall of Fame. Pitchers that seem to be labeled as “winning pitchers” have been inducted despite the overall body of work not looking great (e.g., Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock). Often, these types of pitchers are voted in by the Veterans Committee, but a few will trickle in from the BBWAA (like Ted Lyons). One of the best examples of this would be Cincinnati lefty Eppa Rixey.
Rixey pitched in parts of 21 seasons, posting a record of 266-251 with an ERA of 3.15 in nearly 4500 innings. While not a big strikeout pitcher (only 1350 in his career), he maintained success in his career by not issuing many walks (1082) and limiting his home runs allowed (94) despite giving up a lot of contact (4633 hits allowed). He was also renowned for his defense. Playing in the time before the Gold Gloves were awarded, Rixey collected only 30 errors in his career while making nearly 1200 assists and 130 putouts.
Upon his retirement, Rixey had the most wins (and losses) for a left handed pitcher in the National League until Warren Spahn surpassed that total in 1959 (and would wind up with nearly 100 more wins). It was on the back of this narrative that Rixey was inducted by the Veterans Committee. But, just because he won the most games doesn’t make him a great pitcher.
Rixey’s ERA looks solid, but his ERA- is only 88 (12% better than league average), and his FIP (while good due to his low walk and home run rates) was only 10% better than league average. To put his ERA- in perspective, examples from today’s game of ERA- of 88 would be Adam Conley of the Marlins and Bartolo Colon of the Mets, neither of whom is having a season worthy of the Hall of Fame. Opponents also hit .281 against him in his career, so he wasn’t a dominating presence on the mound. If he could “make pitches when they count” to avoid giving up runs, why wouldn’t he do that to avoid base runners in the first place?
Rixey’s selection was defended by the fact that he played on mediocre teams for a long time and caused him to lose quite a few games. And, to be fair, the Reds and the Phillies weren’t good teams back then. But he was a slightly above average pitcher regardless of his record, and being on a better team wouldn’t change that.
Rixey was another in a long line of solid, above average pitchers that pitched a long time (4500 innings is a lot) and managed to rack up quite a few wins along the way because of it. He isn’t, however, one of the greats.
Stay tuned for the next update:
On deck 8/4/16: This Hall of Famer was so famous for his educated speaking patterns that he became known as the Orator.